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P.S. 169's Josephine Santiago Calls for New Schools to Ease Overcrowding

By Alan Neuhauser | January 14, 2013 6:48am

SUNSET PARK — For a true picture of overcrowding in Sunset Park's P.S. 169, stop by the school's cafeteria.

There, lunch starts at 10:45 a.m. And with more than 1,600 students to serve, it doesn't end until 2:20 p.m.

"The bulk of our day goes into feeding all our children in a limited space," said principal Josephine Santiago.

"The building's not getting any larger, but if you look around at the community, the one- and two-family homes are now six-family dwellings. And then those spaces are shared — families double up.

"Overcrowding is a big issue."

The influx of residents has caused a crush at P.S. 169 and other schools in the neighborhood, forcing many to eliminate pre-K classes to make room for kindergarten seats, and convert teachers' lounges and science labs into classrooms.

But with no space left, Santiago said the time has come for new elementary schools in the neighborhood.

"I can't stress enough, we need another school in Sunset Park — an elementary school," she said. "Something has to be done by next September. They can't sit on this any longer."

What philosophy and approach do you bring to education?
I try to make a difference. I have a religious background. My father was a Protestant pastor — I was instilled that we have to try to help others. For me, it's been more than a job, it's been more like a mission. I get passionate about everything, so I am passionate about what I do.

I believe in empowering and entrusting people. So I don't only say, "Do this." I give people the opportunity to do what they think is right. And I think that is what has made us a successful administrative team.

How has Sunset Park changed since you’ve been principal?
When I first started, the population was about 88 percent Hispanic, 12 percent Asian. Today, I would say it's about 50/50. And I would venture to say that this year, the Asian population is going to be over 50.

It's been a learning experience for me, because I knew nothing about the Asian population. But we've been very, very fortunate to be able to put on board people that have helped myself, my team, and the school and the children. We were able to hire a former parent who's from Venezuela, but she's Asian — she speaks Spanish, Cantonese and English. And then we were able to hire a man who was in the military in Hong Kong, came to the United States, and is fluent in English, Cantonese and Mandarin.

That's why kindergarten registration is always a problem for us — we're close to 1,600 children now, and usually there are about 300 families that want to register their kids here.

Tell me more about overcrowding at this school.
Overcrowding is a big issue. We have several classes with 33, 34 kids. It's just not right.

The sad part is we've got no place to put them. Even if we wanted to open another classroom, there is no room. We use every single nook and cranny. There is no teachers’ room, no art room, I had to take all those things away. We had an additional science room, that's all gone. We've divided rooms to make two separate classrooms from one to accommodate 25 children in kindergarten. But there's just no more space.

What effect does this overcrowding have on learning?
One of the things that teachers need to do is differentiate instruction. So they have to know what levels the children are at, what their strengths and weaknesses are, then group them for reading, math, writing. It's very difficult in a classroom to provide those small group centers because of the actual physical space.

In the upper grades, the problem becomes even worse because of the physical problems. The children are bigger, much bigger, the girls are developing and the hormones are raging, and there's just no space. They're literally on top of each other when they have 32, 33 children in the room.

If you were chancellor for a day, what would you change?
I think more time has to be spent in schools to see what really goes on on a daily basis.

There are so many mandates, they expect supervisors to be in classrooms because the purpose of a supervisor is to help teachers improve instruction, but I think there are so many things that get in the way of that on a daily basis. There are so many emergencies. And especially in a school that's this large, there's always something — I think if you spend some time here, you see how busy it is here.